As a genre and TV staple, the evening talk show is a static enterprise. It doesn't easily invite change. Even as newcomers like Jimmy Fallon and James Corden try to enliven the format with viral videos and karaoke bits, it hasn't evolved much since the days of Johnny Carson. Yet, if it wants to stay relevant, it'll have to. Which is why when the Showtime-branded Desus & Mero premiered last night—as the inaugural late-night endeavor for the premium cable channel, mind you—it did so amid a climate where the evening gabfest model has never felt more in flux, uncertain, or out of place.
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Despite being off TV for seven months—the pair departed Viceland last June to ink a more lucrative deal with Showtime for essentially the same program—Desus Nice (Daniel Baker) and The Kid Mero (Joel Martinez) didn't miss a beat (minus the very woozy cold open). In most ways, the current model reflects the old one. The structure is sportive and purposely riotous, free-form. In place of a routine monologue Desus and Mero trade one-liners about the week's current events as video clips intercut their commentary. An interview segment with a creative or political figure of some sort typically concludes the show. Their first guest under the Showtime banner was New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (uncoincidentally, a Bronx native like the show's hosts), who talked not only about the memes her online trolls use but also the criticism of her proposed marginal tax rate.
The premiere's opening segment was something of a masterclass in cultural critique, and this is typically where the duo hit their sweet spot. On Barack Obama's speech in Oakland for the My Brother's Keeper initiative: "He's all over the place. He's like a Domincan father at a wedding," Desus said, to which Mero (who is Domincan and a father of four) went into a pitch-perfect parody of the archetype. On Green Book, the Oscar-nominated film that has courted controversy for its false portrayal of famed black pianist Don Shirley: " Green Book is basically just Friday with racism." On Vladamir Putin practicing with the Russian national judo team: "He has on a black belt, but I don't think that signifies his karate knowledge. He got that shit from H&M."
Their rapport comes easy because the pair are cross-platform avatars of a particular skill. They first made noise as outspoken Twitter personalities, which they parlayed into a series of podcasts (the most recent is Bodega Boys ), a TV deal with Viceland (which ended after two seasons), and a live comedy show. There is an intimacy and edge to their partnership, they operate with more self-awareness, their social commentary has range and bite, and they are able to tap into perhaps the youngest demographic of late-night viewers. Watching Desus & Mero can feel like being plugged into Twitter without the slime of regret it often leaves power-users with ("Why did I log on!?!" is a too common refrain). It's a bite-sized meld of news and explosive wit—and always the right amount.
Watching Desus & Mero can feel like being plugged into Twitter without the slime of regret it often leaves power-users with ("Why did I log on!?!" is a too common refrain). It's a bite-sized meld of news and explosive wit—and always the right amount.
Still, Desus & Mero is an outlier. It wouldn't be a stretch to speculate that late-night TV is weathering an identity crisis, and has been for a time. Newer shows like Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Late Late Show with James Corden try to push the boundaries with comedic news analysis and "Carpool Karaoke," but the setup is still one host and few guests. Netflix has made unique strides into the genre, but consider the streaming giant's position: It's able to gamble big on stylish imports like The Break with Michelle Wolf and Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj because it has the money to gamble. And the formats of those shows—and their loose-tongued honesty—are still a rarity on ad-sponsored network TV.
The Daily Show of the Jon Stewart era was itself delicious agitprop but that too had more in common with its predecessors than we like to admit. It was designed for a certain class of people (in this case, the college-educated hungering to be politically woke). Consider this too: Late-night TV is a particularly stubborn variety that works to exclude. For all of their comedic agility, David Letterman and Jay Leno mostly pandered to adults five nights a week. It was softball comedy, seldom with engagement of the genuine kind—honest questions, honest answers. The genre has thrived like this for decades on major networks. And little changed with Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, respectively, taking the reins of The Late Show and The Tonight Show . (Young fans hoping for the same cantankerous spirit Colbert staged on The Colbert Report or Fallon's infrequent wacky brilliance on Saturday Night Live were in for a surprise.)
Of course, the interim saw the rise of a cabal of scrappy-pundit driven Stewart acolytes—John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah—who found a place in the talk show firmament. They've carved out singular identities, but still often end up mired in the daily ooze of political muck. Desus and Mero don't have that problem. In their return to the late-night economy, they bring with them a cultural knowingness that requires little to no barrier for entry. It's like taking the best of The Rachel Maddow Show , All In with Chris Hayes , black cultural vortexes like Bossip and The Shade Room, and fusing them into one all-powerful, shit-stirring entity. In moving from Viceland to Showtime, Desus & Mero is now able to reach a much wider audience, proving that maybe, just maybe, late-night is finally ready for a jolt of change.
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